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LGC FINANCE - SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

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The role of finance chiefs is evolving as new corporate structures are set up, competition for chief executive post...
The role of finance chiefs is evolving as new corporate structures are set up, competition for chief executive posts increases and the job demands more technical and personal skills. Kerry Lorimer reports

In days gone by, finance chiefs could count on unparalleled prestige as well as a reasonable crack at the chief executive job when the incumbent moved on.

Now, those balmy days are over. There is a growing trend for finance to be subsumed within the director of corporate resources role, removing the statutory finance officer from the top table at many councils. And, with the growing status of education and social services directors, among others, the moneyman or woman is no longer a shoo-in for the top job.

'There have been a lot of changes in the structure of finance departments,' says Julie Towers, chief executive of Tribal Resourcing. 'Many councils are bringing together corporate finance, IT, legal and human resources into corporate resources departments.'

Most chief executives will, nevertheless, choose to keep the finance director close to them, and councillors tend to like the reassurance of seeing the s151 officer in a prominent position, says Ms Towers. But there is no doubt the career progression of the senior finance officer is less clear cut than it might once have been.

Most finance managers see their influence as having expanded rather than shrunk, in spite of structural changes. That trend has been made stronger by the requirement on councils to deliver their part of the government's drive for public sector efficiency.

'The pressure on budgets, together with Gershon, is making the role of the finance director more important,' says Mike Taylor, executive director for performance and resources at Surrey CC. As a result, removing the statutory chief financial officer from the board is a dangerous trend, he says.

Gareth Moss, head of resource and financial management at East Staffordshire BC, agrees. 'The absence of a formal requirement for the finance director to have a place automatically at the key decision-making meetings means they are left in increasingly precarious positions when required to exercise their statutory roles,' he says.

In terms of the skills demanded of the up-and-coming finance manager, the core technical qualifications are increasingly being seen being as a bare minimum. Those who plan to rise to the top will need to demonstrate a much broader and less tangible set of qualities.

Ms Towers says there is some truth in the stereotype of the personality-free number cruncher skulking in back rooms, 'but being the best accountant is no longer enough to get someone to the top. They also need to work on leadership skills and people management skills.'

Nathan Elvery, director of finance and resrouces at Croydon LBC, says: 'The ability to listen, effectively communicate and be openly visible to the organisation are skills that all finance managers will need to possess.'

They must also be organisationally aware. 'Finance is a service that touches every aspect of service delivery,' says Mr Elvery. 'Managers need to understand how the organisation works and not just on a silo-by-silo basis. They need to possess the softer skills of business managers - negotiation, influence, leadership - to ensure they add value to the frontline service delivery.'

Mark McLaughlin, director of finance and corporate resources at Enfield LBC, says he assumes finance staff will have the technical skills as a matter of course. 'Young accountants are often quiet people who need to develop the capacity to engage with and challenge the 'spenders', and to empathise with them without forgetting their own rigour,' he says.

'It is important to make sure that any cohort of trainee accountants contains a mix of personality types - we need the extroverts as well as the intense intellectuals.'

Finance directors list a slate of hard skills required by the new generation of finance professionals. The changing policy environment brings its own challenges for finance managers and they will be expected to adapt accordingly. This might mean developing annual efficiency statements, responding to the increasingly important 'use of resources' score under comprehensive performance assessment or grappling with the implications of schools funding reform.

Also prominent on the finance director's radar are the forthcoming revaluation of property values, methodology changes to the funding formula, the health of the pension fund and, of course, the outcome of Sir Michael Lyons' inquiry into the future of local government funding.

'Finance managers need to understand the businesses they are helping as well as having good change management skills,' says Stephen Hughes, strategic director of resources at Birmingham City Council. 'The emphasis will be on driving costs down while protecting front-line service standards.'

According to Mr Elvery, the three skills most in demand are the ability to think in the medium term without losing grip on the current year's targets, strategic financial thinking and the capacity to attract the best financial staff. 'Your reputation in the market is critical to building a first-class team around you,' he says.

'The key skills are the ability to explain complex issues to lay people and the ability to carry out the business analysis required to develop and implement complex or large projects,' says Mr Taylor.

David Berry, director of finance and business services at Bexley LBC, says the most sought-after managers will boast a fearsome array of skills. 'They will be ICT literate,

understand the pressures and demands of service managers, be flexible and innovative in terms of providing solutions to issues, good team players and able to communicate effectively throughout the organisation,'

he says.

This changing skill set has blurred the distinction between the public and private sectors. 'The push for efficiency has created a need for more commercial skills,' says Andy Robling, national director at Hays Accountancy & Finance Public Services. Many councils will look to the private sector for people with experience in running, for example, a shared service centre, he says.

In Scotland, best-value audit has thrown financial management into the spotlight. Shetland Islands Council attracted a barrage of media criticism after its policy on

reserves was slated by the Accounts Commission. The tone of most audits might be more muted but there is no doubt the contribution - or lack of it - of financial management to the council's objectives will be more visible than ever before.

Finance directors north of the border say the local government improvement drive has given a welcome emphasis to the role finance plays in the delivery of front-line services.

'Financial managers continue to hold an influential role in the continuous improvement agenda councils are pursuing,' says David Sawers, director of finance at Angus Council.

What is certain is that the finance director of the future will be much more than a counter of beans. 'Finance managers need to be capable of understanding the services they support in the corporate finance environment in which they work,' says Mr Elvery. 'They should be leading service delivery and transformation in partnership with the service manager. Both managers need to understand the role each can play in effective service delivery.'

Mr Berry says the future is not just about accounting, budgeting and understanding public finance. 'It is the need to focus on effective teamworking, professional advice and support to senior service managers, customer focus, support to front-line staff and leadership skills,' he says.

The challenge lies with the next generation of senior finance managers to prove they have these skills. If they do, they will have proved themselves fit for their place at the top table.

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